By Jacob Haywood
Student ministry is like a backpack. When a student enters the ministry, they come empty, waiting to be filled.
Over the next several years, youth pastors and leaders have the opportunity to arm them with things that will not only equip them to live godly lives in the present, but also go with them and impact their lives for years to come.
Student ministry exists to give students the tools and desire to become mature Christian adults.
In education, information is often imparted not for the immediate benefit of knowing that information, but for the long-term abilities it produces in a student. The information learned in each grade school level builds on the other.
Student ministry should function with a similar long-view mindset.
Yet unlike the larger church setting, student ministry is different in that students cycle out of the youth group, having a maximum of seven years if they join from the start of middle school and stay through the end of high school.
Within those seven years are some of the most formative years of a person’s life. Lifeway Research shows that roughly 70% of students who are active in a church youth group will drop out of church altogether between the ages of 18 and 22.
There are two main reasons for this: 1) Students lack the tools needed to follow Christ, and/or 2) students lack the desire to follow Christ.
If a student has the tools but not the desire to follow Christ, they may know how to study the Bible and evangelize, but they won’t have the motivation to put it into practice. They’ll be bad trees that don’t bear much fruit (Matthew 7:17-18).
On the other hand, if students have the desire to follow Christ but lack the tools, they will be carried around by every wind of doctrine, even false ones (Ephesians 4:14).
They might love Jesus but will have a hard time worshipping Him in both Spirit and Truth (John 4:24), because they won’t know very much about the Jesus their heart desires to love.
That is why it is imperative for these two things—the tools and desire to follow Jesus—to be at the forefront of every student ministry.
1. The tools to follow Christ
It goes without saying, but it must be said, students need to know how to study the Bible. This includes both personal spiritual disciplines as well as hermeneutics.
Students should constantly be encouraged, reminded, and given opportunities to have a daily time of reading God’s Word.
Bible reading plans should be made easily accessible for students and encouraged/rewarded multiple times throughout the year.
If students can build the habit of personal Scripture reading in youth group, they will carry that into adulthood where it will inform the remainder of their lives.
Not only should students be encouraged to read the Bible regularly, but they should also be taught how to study the Bible objectively. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of Scripture, is an important part of student ministry (even if the word hermeneutics is never used).
Youth ministers must be careful in how we allow students to interpret Scripture. Saying, “What does this passage mean to you?” isn’t the mindset that should be instilled in Bible study.
There could be 10 different students with 10 different ideas about a single passage.
Not all of them will be right, and many may even contradict each other. The Bible contains intended truth. There is a reason and purpose each passage was written and preserved for our sake.
Instead, students should be trained to approach each passage with, “What did the original author intend for this to mean, and how does it apply to me?”
Students not only need to know how to study the Bible, but also how to combat false teaching. Apologetics, a defense of one’s faith, should be a staple in every faithful student ministry.
When students leave the safety of youth group, they’ll be bombarded with secular ideologies in their colleges and workplaces.
If they aren’t well equipped with the tools to differentiate and combat right from wrong and truth from fiction, they will likely give into the secularism that surrounds them.
Yet many students won’t have to wait until college before they are introduced to non-Christian ideologies. As Sean McDowell and J. Warner Wallace argue in So the Next Generation Will Know: Preparing Young Christians for a Challenging World:
“A recent study found that nearly 95 percent of teenagers in America have access to a smartphone. In the past, young people encountered skepticism primarily from their friends or from professors in the university. Today, the internet is easily accessed on smartphones and mobile devices, bringing the most ardent skepticism home to the next generation at a very young age.”
2. The desire to follow Christ
How do you give someone desire? You can’t. Only God can do that.
But you can offer opportunities that place students in environments where they see the life-changing power of the gospel and their place in proclaiming it.
The gospel literally changes lives. It brings about new creations. Nothing will fan into flame a passion for Christ more than seeing lives changed for Christ.
That means that pastors and leaders must highlight and celebrate every instance of life-change in their ministry.
If leaders are excited about the gospel and its impact, their students will be, too. If leaders are not excited about the gospel, neither will their students be.
Mission trips and local evangelism must be staples in student ministries.
Many vocational missionaries realized their call to missions by participating in a mission trip as a student. Many pastors realized their call while being actively engaged in the work of the church in their formative years.
If the church is going to develop future gospel leaders, students must be given opportunities to lead. Active involvement in the work of the gospel will light a flame in students that can never be put out.
But even with all the opportunities students may have to serve and lead, some students may still not recognize living for the gospel as a worthwhile investment. Taking up one’s cross is costly, hard, and uncomfortable.
On the other hand, the way of the world is easy. It’s no wonder there are many on the wide road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).
Students must see Christ as worth following if they are truly going to continue in their faith and take up their cross in the face of hardship and persecution.
Youth pastors and leaders should constantly remind and plead with their students that following Jesus is worth it. No matter how much it costs us.
After all, didn’t Jesus give His all for us?
Student ministry is important to the kingdom of God. Individual lives, families, and the future of the church are built on the foundations that are laid now.
What foundation are you laying? What are you putting in your students’ backpacks for them to carry with them?
And when they leave your ministry, will they be well equipped to take out those tools and desire to impact the world for Christ?
JACOB HAYWOOD (@jacobhaywood) currently serves as the student pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He’s also a PhD student in Apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is pursuing a ThM in Ethics.